Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

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by Michael Kranish

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When Thomas Jefferson wrote his epitaph, he listed as his accomplishments his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia statute of religious freedom, and his founding of the University of Virginia. He did not mention his presidency or that he was second governor of the state of Virginia, in the most trying hours of the Revolution. Dumas Malone,


When Thomas Jefferson wrote his epitaph, he listed as his accomplishments his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia statute of religious freedom, and his founding of the University of Virginia. He did not mention his presidency or that he was second governor of the state of Virginia, in the most trying hours of the Revolution. Dumas Malone, author of the epic six-volume biography, wrote that the events of this time explain Jefferson's "character as a man of action in a serious emergency." Joseph Ellis, author of American Sphinx, focuses on other parts of Jefferson's life but wrote that his actions as governor "toughened him on the inside." It is this period, when Jefferson was literally tested under fire, that Michael Kranish illuminates in Flight from Monticello.

Filled with vivid, precisely observed scenes, this book is a sweeping narrative of clashing armies—of spies, intrigue, desperate moments, and harrowing battles. The story opens with the first murmurs of resistance to Britain, as the colonies struggled under an onerous tax burden and colonial leaders—including Jefferson—fomented opposition to British rule. Kranish captures the tumultuous outbreak of war, the local politics behind Jefferson's actions in the Continental Congress (and his famous Declaration), and his rise to the governorship. Jefferson's life-long belief in the corrupting influence of a powerful executive led him to advocate for a weak governorship, one that lacked the necessary powers to raise an army. Thus, Virginia was woefully unprepared for the invading British troops who sailed up the James under the direction of a recently turned Benedict Arnold. Facing rag-tag resistance, the British force took the colony with very little trouble. The legislature fled the capital, and Jefferson himself narrowly eluded capture twice.

Kranish describes Jefferson's many stumbles as he struggled to respond to the invasion, and along the way, the author paints an intimate portrait of Jefferson, illuminating his quiet conversations, his family turmoil, and his private hours at Monticello. "Jefferson's record was both remarkable and unsatisfactory, filled with contradictions," writes Kranish. As a revolutionary leader who felt he was unqualified to conduct a war, Jefferson never resolved those contradictions—but, as Kranish shows, he did learn lessons during those dark hours that served him all his life.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
No great figures are now without multiple biographies, so why not slice up their lives into smaller subjects? Since that seems to be the current way, we're lucky to have a serious slice like this one. Kranish (a Boston Globe reporter and coauthor of John F. Kerry) focuses on Jefferson's much criticized yearlong governorship of Virginia during the last throes of the American Revolution. The British had invaded Virginia, the state militia was weak, and regular forces had not yet arrived. So Jefferson and the state legislature had to flee westward to avoid capture. By the time American forces, aided by the French, had forced a showdown at Yorktown in 1781, Jefferson's term in office had ended. Yet many held him responsible for Virginia's near disaster. That's allowed critics ever since to assail his behavior as cowardly and incompetent. Without making his book an open argument for the defense, Kranish relates the historical context and musters the facts that absolve Jefferson of the charges against him. It's hard to see how a stronger case could be made. Fluid prose makes the book readable; solid research makes it dependable. 21 b&w illus., 1 map. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Kranish (Boston Globe; coauthor, John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography) based this book on impressive research at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and a wide immersion in published primary and secondary works. As a journalist, he knows how to tell a good story. The book concentrates on Jefferson's time as second governor of Virginia and his narrow escapes from Richmond and Monticello during the British invasion of 1781. But Kranish also offers an excellent overview of Jefferson's entire life, from the perspectives of what prepared him for the revolution and how the revolution affected the remainder of his career. The author effectively refutes the charge that Jefferson behaved as a coward; as governor, he was more courageous than most members of the state assembly. Jefferson shares part of the blame for Virginia's lack of preparedness for the British invasion, but he always admitted that he was ill suited to be a military commander. In evenhanded fashion, Kranish shows that the bickering state assembly and a citizenry that balked at serving in the militia shared responsibility. Jefferson, though flawed, emerges as a gifted, hardworking, and well-intentioned patriot. VERDICT Crisply written and well documented, this book is popular history at its best and will appeal to a wide readership. Highly recommended.—Thomas J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., NY
From the Publisher
"No great figures are now without multiple biographies, so why not slice up their lives into smaller subjects? Since that seems to be the current way, we're lucky to have a serious slice like [Flight From Monticello]... Fluid prose makes the book readable; solid research makes it dependable." —Publishers Weekly

"Thomas Jefferson's wartime conduct as governor of Virginia haunted him down the decades, and Michael Kranish has now brought this critical episode in American history to vivid life. Anyone interested in the Revolutionary War, in Jefferson, or in the formation of political character will find Kranish's book both delightful and instructive."—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion

"My admiration for Flight from Monticello knows no bounds. Michael Kranish, one of America's best reporters, draws a brilliant portrait of Thomas Jefferson in turmoil. His analysis of Jefferson's strategic blunders is pioneering. Only Dumas Malone equals Kranish in dissecting Jefferson the Virginian. Highly recommended!"—Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, and The Great Deluge

"Michael Kranish has written a vivid and compelling account, with wonderful illustrative and often unfamiliar anecdotes, including descriptions of Benedict Arnold's wearing a British general's uniform and riding along the Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg, and Jefferson's last-minute escape from Banastre Tarleton's troops. Flight from Monticello is an exciting account of a little-known but important chapter of revolutionary history."—Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, director International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, professor at the University of Virginia, fellow of the Royal Historical Society

"Flight From Monticello succeeds superbly well in opening a new window on Thomas Jefferson during the Revolution. In this period of his life, he proved to be an incompetent military leader, poor planner and touchy and defensive Virginian. Kranish's suspenseful narrative illuminates Jefferson's shortcomings, and with great sympathy and skill reveals why this crucial moment of his life forever haunted America's favorite Renaissance Man."—Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

"Crisply written and well documented, this book is popular history at its best and will appeal to a wide readership. Highly recommended." — Library Journal

"This is edge-of-your-seat history, meticulously researched and laid out, but written with such high drama and cinematic clarity that even well-known events of America's Revolutionary War are made to seem suspenseful-as if this time their outcomes might be different." — ForeWord

"Students of Jefferson's life will want to read Flight From Monticello." — Newsweek

"...superb narrative of the high-minded Virginian's turbulent wartime years." — Wall Street Journal

"...a readable and surprisingly fresh take on Jefferson, the Revolutionary War, and Colonial Virginia...this is solid, entertaining history that debunks some myths while conveying the fog of war." — Boston Globe

"...provides a fresh look at one of America's most revered historical leaders with an attention to drama that will keep readers trekking through to the very end." — Roll Call

"The story of this seldom-told episode of our early history is dramatically told by Michael Kranish...Even people with broad knowledge of the Revolutionary period will gain from his diligent research, analytical insight and sparkling prose...Flight from Monticello is a worthwhile read." — Washington Times

"A brilliantly narrated account of the British invasion and Jefferson's problematic response to it." —Wilson Quarterly

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Read an Excerpt

Beyond All My Fears
A northwestern gale blew furiously into Arnold’s fleet as it headed south from New York. The winds picked up on Christmas Eve, the sea foaming with whitecaps. Then the skies darkened and the rains came, pounding the British ships for the next two days in a soaking deluge. Visibility diminished almost completely as wafts of mist rose from the sea to meet the clouds.

The sloop-of-war Swift and the armed brigantine Rambler heaved in the swells, suffering under the weight of cannons and troops. Ships were driven by the winds to shallow water near the coast. Rain pelted the sailors’ faces as they climbed the rigging and tied up sails to avoid being swept away. As waves crashed onto the decks, Arnold and the other commanders ordered the men to lighten the ships. Sailors raced to unshackle the heavy cannons, working in small groups to heave many of their most prized armaments into the sea. The Sally, bristling with weaponry, was swamped with water and came close to sinking.1

To venture on deck was to risk sliding into the abyss. The ropes were sodden, the planks slicked, making it nearly impossible to maintain footing. A sailor tackling a winter gale could quickly find his jacket drenched and then frozen to his back, his hands numb, his eyes perpetually blinking away the moisture. Many of the men had experienced such danger before and knew how quickly frostbite could take hold, leading to the loss of sensation in their hands or feet. But they also knew how men were lost at sea for failing to deal immediately with the threat of a ship overburdened by winter.

The situation was especially desperate on board the ship that carried a hundred of the finest horses that Arnold could assemble. The tightly packed animals were panicked by the howling winds and rain, the lightning and thunder. They could not be contained as the boat rocked in the sea and water swamped the deck. The boat itself was “very bad, infamously provided and totally unfit for service.” As the storm raged, the horses’ caretakers finally were forced to let more than forty of the animals go overboard, desperate to save weight and prevent the ship’s sinking. “The very Skippers were fearful of sailing, and it required every exertion of the Quarter-Masters to oblige them to weigh anchor, and, at sea, the utmost industry and labor could barely keep them from foundering,” wrote John Graves Simcoe, the commander of the Queen’s Rangers.2 Four ships, including one with four hundred men, became separated from the main fleet, not to be seen again for a week. For days, it was feared the vessels had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic. On the day after Christmas, the fleet “was so scattered by a gale” that those aboard a ship carrying a Hessian corps found themselves adrift, with no other vessels in sight. In an effort to keep details of the mission secret, the officers in charge had not been told of their precise destination. Instead, they had been given a sealed letter, to be opened only in the event that the ships were separated. Now, after two days without seeing another ship, the Hessian officer ordered this “letter of rendezvous” to be opened and the destination revealed: the Cape of Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake.3

The storm had one beneficial effect for the British: it hid the fleet from anyone who might have spied them from land. Arnold was determined to push on, believing that the British could win the war if they captured Virginia. He took comfort that many of his men were Loyalists, including a corps of Virginians, underscoring the British view that Virginia was deeply divided about the revolution more than four years after the Declaration of Independence. Arnold was sure that thousands more would defect to the British as he sailed up the James River.

The Virginia coast had attracted seafarers, pirates, and plunderers since the earliest days of British exploration. From the Atlantic Ocean, the capes of Virginia seemed like two great gates, inviting vessels to enter the state’s network of riverine highways. The settlers of Jamestown went through this opening as if pulled into a vortex; many other ships followed. The Indians living along the riverbanks could do nothing to stop these great British ships, and the settlers began to establish a series of villages and forts along the inland waterways, wary that the Spanish would come through the same waters and take Virginia for themselves.

The waterways were Virginia’s strength and weakness. They stretched across the state from the Atlantic to the Appalachians, forming a necklace, with Jamestown, Richmond, Petersburg, and other towns and cities strung like beads across it. During the Revolution, the British often blockaded the Capes with their massive ships, while the Virginians were barely able to construct a handful of poorly equipped vessels.

Before Collier’s raid in early 1779, Virginia had as many as sixty-nine armed vessels, although many were poorly equipped and lightly manned. Many were captured, destroyed, or badly damaged during the raid. Later that year, when Jefferson became governor, his administration calculated that the state had flight from monticello only twelve serviceable warships, with a combined eighty-eight guns and 343 naval personnel.4 The navy received only two vessels in 1779 and 1780, neither of them warships; one was a packet boat that served as a messenger service and the other was intended to carry supplies to the prisoners at Charleston.5

Jefferson had been urged by aides to place ships at the Capes to prevent a seaborne invasion. But Jefferson believed this was impossible, given the state of what he called “our miserable navy.” Expressing the need for additional ships, Jefferson said that “it has been my uniform opinion that our only practicable defense was naval.” His effort to institute such a defense, however, was “unsuccessful beyond all my fears.”6

Jefferson had been deeply impressed by an unusual ship developed by the Pennsylvania navy, an open, half-deck vessel with one or two triangular sails known as lateens attached to small masts. These ships had been effective during engagements on the Delaware River and later were used by Arnold.7 Jefferson hoped that Virginia would build such vessels, but the plan was changed repeatedly as it passed through the legislature and state Navy Board. In the end, a frustrated Jefferson wrote, there was “100,000 pounds laid out to not a shilling’s benefit.” He believed “we should be gainers were we to burn our whole navy.”8

The British seemed to capture American ships at will, while the Americans rarely caught a British vessel. “A British prize would be a more rare phenomenon than a comet, because the one has been seen but the other has not,” Jefferson wrote.9 In 1779, the Virginia navy vessel Dolphin encountered three British ships shortly after passing Cape Henry. Captain John Cowper, who had vowed never to surrender his vessel, unwisely decided to engage the British despite being outmanned, and the Dolphin was promptly shredded on all sides by a cannonade. Virginians watched the engagement from the shore, barely making out the sails of the four ships. The thunder and smoke of the cannons could be heard and seen in the distance, but when the battle ended, all that was visible was three British vessels departing. The Dolphin sank and her entire crew of seventy-five died. It was the worst loss in the short history of the Virginia navy, emboldening the British and leaving Virginia’s sailors hesitant to engage the enemy at sea unless they had clear superiority.10 Failing to gain help from the state or Congress, Jefferson suggested to a French diplomat that it would be worthwhile for Paris to order a fleet to Virginia “to protect the Commerce of your own state . . . what is best for your nation, is best for us also.”11

Notwithstanding Jefferson’s disillusionment, Virginia’s navy occasionally had done wonders even with its limited resources in the early days of the revolution. Through guile and daring, James Barron, whom Jefferson had picked to head the state’s navy, had captured several British ships while sailing on Chesapeake Bay aboard the Liberty. But the invasions by Leslie and Collier devastated the navy. Moreover, the destruction of Norfolk had resulted in the loss of shipwrights, sailmakers, rope workers, and countless other experts in the trade. The shipyard at Portsmouth had been mostly destroyed. The newer shipyard on the Chickahominy River near Williamsburg was still a small operation. Much of the state’s navy consisted of privately owned vessels impressed into service; the owners hoped to capture British ships or to seize property owned by Loyalists. Virginians seemed resigned to the fact that if an invasion came by sea, the enemy would have free rein and could not be stopped before they reached land. Some believed it was impossible for Virginia’s forces to defend a region larger than some European countries with a minuscule force: less than one militiaman to every square mile, and only one in five militiamen in possession of a serviceable weapon.12

At the same time, Jefferson was distracted by fighting on another front. During the days that Arnold was en route to Virginia, Jefferson was more concerned about British stirring up the Indians—a faraway threat in the Ohio country—than about the possibility of another seaborne invasion by the British. Just six days before Arnold’s invasion, Jefferson wrote about enemies forming in the south and west, while making no mention of a threat from the north that might result in an invasion through Chesapeake Bay. “There seems but one method of preventing the savages from spreading slaughter and desolation over our whole frontier,” Jefferson wrote about the Indians to militia leaders in western Hampshire and Berkeley counties on December 24, 1780. “That is by carrying the war into their own country.” On Christmas Day, Jefferson wrote a lengthy letter to his friend and Albemarle County neighbor, Brigadier General George Rogers Clark, filled with explicit instructions about how to attack the Indians. Jefferson proposed sending Clark everything from four cannons and a thousand spades to whatever boats were necessary. Jefferson wrote that he had received intelligence that “a very extensive combination of British and Indian savages” was planning to invade the state’s western frontier. By some estimates, Jefferson wanted to devote as many as one thousand valuable Virginia soldiers to his westward aspirations, which would further weaken Virginia’s defenses in the east.13

The legislature had recognized how vulnerable the eastern portion of the state was to an invasion from the sea. A few months earlier, in October 1780, the legislature passed an act that required that “proper attention shall be paid to the defence of the commerce and the shores of Chesapeak bay and its dependencies.” The measure called for a number of vessels to be fully manned and armed “for the purpose of suppressing the cruizers belonging to the enemy, and flight from monticello affording protection and safety to the good citizens inhabiting the shores of the bay and rivers.”14 The terms of the act were never fulfilled, however. While the invasion was under way, Jefferson acknowledged, “we had three vessels of 16 guns, one of 14, five small gallies, and two or three armed boats. They were generally so badly manned as seldom to be in condition for service.”15

Jefferson seemed fed up with being governor under such conditions. He urged his old friend John Page to take his place, leaving the impression that he might resign before his term expired the following June, or at least not seek a third term. A horrified Page implored Jefferson to remain at his post. “I know your love of study and retirement must strongly solicit you to leave the hurry, bustle, and nonsense your station daily exposes you to,” he wrote Jefferson, but insisted there was no one else in Virginia who had the ability to lead the state at such a moment. Jefferson remained as governor, hoping that reports of a British force headed southward were another false alarm.16

If an invasion did come, Virginia had no system to warn its citizens. No riders were posted at lookouts, no drums of tar that could be lit as fire signals were set out, no full-time force manned artillery along the coast. A communication system set up earlier by Jefferson, consisting of some of Virginia’s finest horsemen posted at forty-mile intervals, had been shut down due to the expense and the belief that it was no longer needed. The legislature also had failed to approve plans to construct a series of fortified batteries at key points along major rivers.

Such was Virginia’s state of affairs as Arnold sailed south: an ineffective navy, no lookouts, a dispersed and poorly armed militia, a recalcitrant legislature, and a coastal citizenry still recovering from the last two invasions.

Few doubted Arnold’s ability as a naval commander. Five years earlier, when Arnold was fighting on the American side at Lake Champlain, Jefferson himself had written that Arnold was “a fine sailor.”17 His British superiors hoped Arnold would, at the least, tie up American forces in Virginia, preventing them from coming to the aid of troops battling against Cornwallis in the Carolinas.

Arnold had his own ambitions, as can be seen clearly by a secret deal he struck that he hoped would enrich him. Arnold’s 1,600-man force was split between the British army and navy. While Arnold was the lead commander of both services, he had direct control only over the army. The navy was overseen by Thomas Symonds, commander of the forty-four-gun HMS Charon. Under the British rules of engagement, Symonds’s naval forces were allowed to keep as “prizes” the bounty from captured enemy vessels. It was a major incentive to serve in the highly risky profession of sailor. The army did not typically trade in such prizes. Arnold thought this was unfair. As the ships sailed to Virginia, Arnold proposed to Symonds that the navy and army split the prizes equally, no matter which branch seized the ships and plunder. Arnold later swore in a deposition that Symonds had readily agreed to the plan.

Sir Henry Clinton, who had of course chosen Arnold for this mission, gave him somewhat limited orders. Arnold was to destroy some arms depots if there is a “favourable opportunity” and only if “it may be done without much risk.” Arnold’s main mission was to establish a base at Portsmouth, just as Collier had suggested, and gather together as many Loyalists from Norfolk and Princess Anne counties as possible. After establishing the base, Clinton continued, Arnold was not to “make any excursions from thence unless they can be effected without the smallest danger to the safety of the post which is always to be considered as the primary mission.”

Arnold promptly stretched these orders to fit his designs. He viewed the instruction to destroy the arms depots as a license to head straight for the interior of Virginia on a two-week raid before setting foot in Portsmouth. From the moment he reached Virginia, Arnold would make clear that he was his own commander. Indeed, Clinton had anticipated Arnold’s aggressiveness and made clear that he did not entirely trust him. He told Arnold not to take any major action until checking with two British officers—Simcoe, the aforementioned leader of the Queen’s Rangers, and Colonel Thomas Dundas, head of the 80th Regiment of Foot.18 Clinton gave Simcoe and Dundas the authority “to execute the duties of the command which is entrusted to his direction” in case of Arnold’s death or incapacity. “Incapacity” was loosely defined. If Dundas or Simcoe thought Arnold was taking an improper action, they could assume command. The order was to be kept secret from Arnold. “You are upon no Account to make known that You are possessed of such a Commission,” Clinton told the officers.19

Arnold assembled a nimble corps, including specialists in la petite guerre, or “little war,” in which small units engaged in ambushes and raids. These included the Queen’s Rangers, an expeditionary force of Loyalists who specialized in unorthodox tactics and wore green jackets—instead of the traditional British red coats—that kept them better hidden in forests from spring through fall. The Queen’s Rangers were accompanied by an independent attachment, the Bucks County Volunteers, Loyalists serving under Captain William Thomas. Another group, the Loyal American Regiment, was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Beverley Robinson Jr. It was Robinson’s father who had played a key role in convincing Arnold to defect to the British and who had also arranged for his son’s commission in the regiment. While many British officers would chafe under Arnold’s command, Robinson reveled in it, delighted to be serving on the mission to restore Virginia to the control of the crown.

An elite group of Hessian soldiers completed the convoy. It was led by Johann von Ewald, one of the most revered Hessians to serve the British. Unlike British officers, many of whom received their commissions as a result of family connections and financial payments, Ewald’s position was based purely on his knowledge of the art of war. He would go on to play one of the most important roles in the invasion of Virginia, ably performing his duty but also clashing with Arnold at key moments.

On December 29, the fleet assembled at Cape Henry, passing the Chesapeake Bay estuary at 4:00 p.m. and anchoring that evening at Lynnhaven Bay. At nine o’clock the next morning the fleet set sail and reached Hampton Roads, at the mouth of the James River, and proceeded to Newport News, where Arnold anchored in the evening. Despite a howling wind, Arnold gave a prearranged signal for commanding officers to leave their ships and row aboard small craft to the sloop-of-war Charon. There Arnold laid out the battle plan: a swift strike against an unwitting enemy. The larger ships, carrying the artillery and cavalry corps, would provide an armed escort. Most of the men were transferred to open sloops and boats, where they huddled on crowded decks, bundled up against the wind. Each man was given five days’ rations: salted meat, biscuits, and plenty of rum. The food and drink were expected to last until they had reached the capital, Richmond.

Meet the Author

Michael Kranish is a reporter in the Washington bureau of The Boston Globe. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography, described by Michiko Kakutani as "a fascinating portrait...a harrowing, pictorial narrative."

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Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
OldWahoo More than 1 year ago
Very entertaining account of the Revolution in Virginia and the travails of Governor Thomas Jefferson. Anyone interested in Jefferson or the colonial period will enjoy this book.
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Warren Croom More than 1 year ago
Awful book, can't download after paying. Don't get caught up in this scam.
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